The Droop Mountain Battlefield was the site of one of the largest Civil War battles fought in West Virginia. Although this engagement is less well-known than more iconic battles such as Manassas, Antietam, or Gettysburg, it was highly significant in deciding the course of the war in West Virginia since, the West Virginia Tourism Office maintains, the Union victory at Droop Mountain effectively ended major efforts on the part of the Confederacy to reclaim the state. Given that Civil War memory is a highly contentious issue in today’s social climate, it is highly important to preserve the records of Civil War battles, both well-known and lesser known, for posterity in order that students of U.S. History may have a continued appreciation for and understanding of what is widely considered to be the most pivotal conflict fought on American soil.
West Virginia Secedes
The counties of present-day West Virginia were still a part of Virginia when it seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861. Although some West Virginians eagerly rushed to take up arms for the Confederate cause amidst the general war fever of 1861 – the most notable Confederate West Virginian of the war was Virginia Military Institute professor Thomas Jonathan Jackson who became legendary as “Stonewall” Jackson – there was a strong Unionist sentiment among the broader population in the region due to longstanding enmity between the western and eastern parts of the state. Many West Virginians strongly resented the concentration of political power in the hands of the eastern plantation aristocracy, whom they considered neglectful of western interests. Consequently, in response to Virginia’s secession, Unionist leaders who hailed primarily from the northwestern counties, Mark A. Snell writes in the West Virginia Encyclopedia, “began the political process that eventually led to the creation of the new state of West Virginia on June 20, 1863.” As Union and Confederate forces subsequently fought for control of the region, Unionist sympathizers provided aid to the Union troops, either by enlisting in the Union Army, serving as scouts or spies, or committing acts of sabotage against the Confederacy.
The engagement at Droop Mountain took place on November 6, 1863, when Union forces under Brigadier General William W. Averell launched their second attempt to disrupt the Virginia-Tennessee Railroad at Salem, Virginia. The Union troops, numbering about 5,000, were met by a Confederate force of approximately 1,700 men under the commander of Brigadier General John Echols. While they were outnumbered, the West Virginia State Parks website observes, Confederates had command of the high ground and blocked the route with artillery. The demographics of the units involved in the battle truly demonstrated the divisiveness of the war in West Virginia: The Union regiments included several West Virginia units – the 10th West Virginia Infantry, the 2nd, 3rd and 8th West Virginia Mounted Infantry Regiments, and the 1st West Virginia Light Artillery – while the Confederates’ 19th Virginia Cavalry comprised men largely from the same region as those of the Union’s 10th West Virginia Infantry. Furthermore, the engagement illustrated wartime family divisions as well: Among the West Virginians fighting on the Union side was Frank Dye, of Wood County, while his brother, Harrison Dye, served in the 22nd Virginia on the Confederate side, as Roy Bird Cook attested in his 1928 article on the battle.
During the battle, Union troops turned the Confederate left flank following fierce fighting with the 22nd Virginia Infantry, the 23rd Virginia Battalion and the 14th Virginia Cavalry. Averell then sent the 2nd, 3rd, and 8th West Virginia Mounted Infantry Regiments forward as dismounted troopers to reinforce the assault, and the combined effects of Union artillery fire and the infantry assault compelled the 19th Virginia Cavalry and the 22nd and 23rd Virginia Battalions to fall back to the main Confederate line. Upon learning that Union troops under A.N. Duffie had been spotted at Big Sewell en route from Charleston to Lewisburg, Echols and his subordinate William L. Jackson ordered a retreat to avoid being cut off. After nearly six hours of fighting, the Union forces were left in possession of the field as the Confederates withdrew to Lewisburg. The total number of casualties in the war’s last major engagement in West Virginia was small in comparison to more iconic Civil War battles: Cook wrote that the Union suffered 119 dead, wounded, or missing while the Confederates lost 275.
The Fighting Ends
While the Battle of Droop Mountain was a minor Union victory, Terry Lowry writes that Averell failed to achieve his principal objective of disrupting the Virginia-Tennessee Railroad and cutting off Confederate forces. Echols withdrew into Virginia, and Averell and Duffie called off pursuit since the Union troops were in no condition to follow up on their success. Nonetheless, Droop Mountain was a strategically important victory for the Union cause since it effectively ended Confederate efforts to reclaim and control West Virginia. The new state was thus secured as a Union state, placing the Union Army in a position to threaten southwestern Virginia.
Droop Mountain Battlefield Today
The Droop Mountfield Battlefield was dedicated in 1928 as West Virginia’s first state park. Today the park forms part of the Civil War Discovery Trail, linking over 300 historic sites in 16 states. According to the park description on the West Virginia State Parks website, visitors will have the opportunity to utilize the park’s hiking trails, picnic shelters and play areas and learn about the battlefield’s history at the onsite museum, which includes exhibits on the battle and Civil War artifacts. During the month of October in even-numbered years, Droop Mountain Battlefield is the scene of Civil War reenactments which recreate the historic engagement, providing visitors with a sense of living history as it took place 157 years ago.
Each of the hiking trails at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park is full of historical significance. For example, Musket Trail is characterized by the stumps of American Chestnut trees that stood at the time of the battle and viewing these stumps can give viewers a sense of the historic aura of this natural environment. In addition, following the cliffs on Overlook Trail provides visitors with a scenic overlook of Civil War-era trenches that were utilized by the combatants at Droop Mountain. Furthermore, Minie Ball Trail, described on the WVSP site as “the most rigorous park trail,” is situated in a ravine where Union troops climbed Droop Mountain to attack the entrenched Confederates above them. Hiking along this trail can instill in visitors a feeling of being in the shoes of the Union soldiers and a sense of awe at what it would have felt like to climb the steep mountain slopes in the chaos of battle.
A Haunted Ground
Visitors to the park may also experience the haunting thrill of being exposed to the supernatural. Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park is said to be inhabited by the ghosts of Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the battle. One notable ghost story associated with the park was told by retired logger Edgar Walton, who camped at the battlefield for a night while returning from work in 1920. According to Walton’s testimony, he had prepared a fire near the cemetery containing the graves of Confederate dead when he suddenly heard “the sound of rustling leaves,” which prompted him to look up in surprise and, to his shock, encounter “the headless apparition of a Confederate soldier floating past.” Throughout the years, the West Virginia Haunts and Legends site writes, there have been numerous other reported supernatural sightings in the form of ghostly screams, the sounds of battle, and the passing spirits of slain combatants.
In conclusion, Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, one of the lesser-known battlegrounds of the Civil War, is an important reminder of the conflict in West Virginia and a hallowed site that bears testimony to the courage and determination of the soldiers on both sides who fought for their respective causes. In addition, it is steeped in supernatural mystery and suspense, as visitors may encounter the spirits of Union and Confederate soldiers while hiking the park’s trails. This ghostly presence will not only provide people with the haunting thrill of being frightened, but it may also serve as a testament to the importance of remembering Civil War history. In a highly polarized atmosphere characterized by the defacement of Confederate and even some Union monuments, visitors will hopefully come away from their supernatural encounters at Droop Mountain with a renewed appreciation for the value of historical preservation, which they will hopefully pass on to subsequent generations. By educating people about our history, we can promote a constructive future in which the past is preserved while taking lessons from it so that both Civil War-era and present-day divisions may hopefully be prevented from repeating themselves.
Interesting account of an unfamiliar battle to me.